Tuesday, 13 January 2009

Gender Trouble

Judith Butler is an American theorist who has written about lots of things including gender, queer theory (which is about deconstructing ideas of gender and sexuality), politics and ethics.

The question at the heart of her book, “Gender Trouble” is this: if we take on board Foucault's critique of the way that sexuality is constructed by discourse, and recognise that both gender and even biological sex are at least partly social constructs (see my post on Laqueur if this all sounds like nonsense to you), what does this mean for feminism? How can feminists take political action on behalf of “women” when the category of “women” is constructed by the very same society which oppresses women? Not only is the category a construct, but by constructing the categories of sex and gender, society excludes people who don't fit neatly into those categories – transgendered people, gay and lesbian people, hermaphrodites - it refuses to acknowledge their existence, and so forces them either to conform to categories which don't fit them, or to be classed as non-people. Does feminism become another form of oppression by fighting for “women”'s rights, and how can it avoid being just another form of oppression?

Butler argues that identity politics (i.e. taking political action on behalf of a particular group of people, united by some aspect of their identity e.g. feminism, civil rights, gay rights) tends to assume that identity exists outside of society's discourses, that identities are separate to the stories we tell in society about who people are. But, she says, even if anything exists outside of discourse, we can't ever get to it without going through discourse to get there. People might be physically male or female, but we can only ever understand maleness and femaleness through the stories we tell in society about what it means to be male and female. She argues that there isn't a “doer behind the deed”, but that actually every individual is constituted by the discourses they take part in. We can't get to a “prediscursive” self - we can't find out who we are before and behind the stories we tell about ourselves and each other, because it's those stories and the way we enact them in our relationships within society that constitute our identity. Identity is a practice - it's something we do, a way we engage with the stories around us and reshape them. But stable identities are created by repetition – I think of myself as a woman because people tell me that I am repeatedly, and I participate in behaviour which reinforces that identity like wearing skirts, growing my hair long, buying lots of shoes, wearing make up. Butler calls this “gender performativity”: gender is a role we play for ourselves and other people. The fact that our performances need to be constantly repeated (one chick flick does not a woman make) means that they aren't necessarily stable – we can retell them and reenact them in ways which subvert them and subtly alter their meaning and therefore the definition of different categories.

Butler argues, therefore, that political action on behalf of any particular identity should consist in retelling and reenacting stories of identity but in a way which subverts and therefore radically alters them. She argues that gender parody – gender performance but with subtle differences which undermine existing ideas of what gender is – is the way to take political action to change oppressive ideas of what gender is. The more different stories we tell and enact about what it means to be male and female, the harder it will be to hold onto existing stories which oppress and exclude people. As examples of the sort of parody she is talking about, Butler uses drag as an example. Drag makes fun of the notion of an inherent gender identity by saying that gender is really just an appearance and an act – the outside is feminine and the interior masculine, but it also says that, for the person in drag, while they may be physically (i.e. externally) male, they're female on the inside. They're masculine and feminine both interiorly and exteriorly, and so any ideas we might have about absolute gender identity start to stretch at the seams and hopefully get a bit more spacious and a bit less oppressive.

I'll talk about this more some other time, as I'm reading a lot about gender at the moment, but the sort of ideas Butler talks about are really interesting from a theological point of view. On the one hand, the Bible says that God created humankind “male and female”; on the other hand, “in Christ there is no...male or female.” A lot of theological discussion at the moment seems to argue either that gender is something intrinsic to us, and part of our being made in the image of God, or that actually, Christian eschatology suggests that gender is not something which will carry over into the new heavens and the new earth, that our Christian identity as the body of Christ relativises all our other identities, and that subverting gender identities is deeply Christian and part of our call to live out the values of the kingdom of God on earth.

No comments: